Whether we argue a lot with our spouses, or rarely lock horns on, when we’re in the thick of a conflict it’s natural for us to ask: Why are we fighting?*
While finding the answer might seem important, when time and energy are at a premium—meaning, pretty much all of the time for parents —it’s wise for us to shift our emphasis from “why” to:
How do we fight?
I’ve coached couples in which one or both spouses insist they don’t fight. Yet conflict-avoidance is a form of conflict.
Whether or not we’re comfortable with conflict, not only is conflict a normal part of relationships; it’s a necessary one.
Psychologists like Lawrence A. Kudek and John Gottman have discovered that our satisfaction with spouses is tied to how well we resolve conflicts and how effectively we manage their negative impact on our relationships and on us.
The problem with disagreements isn’t that we have them, it’s that most of us are neither skilled at resolving them nor adept at ensuring their impact on our marriage is productive instead of destructive.
Learning how to better navigate conflict is crucial to parenting. Why? Because the stakes aren’t solely about our relationship satisfaction, but also how capably we model conflict-resolution for and with our kids.
Learning to “fight right” enhances how we handle disagreements with our children, now and in the future, and impacts how our kids manage relationship conflict in their own lives.
John Gottman’s work on this topic is really useful. His list of 4 primary attitudes and behaviors—what he dramatically calls, “Horsemen of the Apocalypse”—that erode relationship happiness offer a blueprint for how most of us currently handle or instigate conflict:
1) Disrespect (a.k.a., Contempt; the most destructive & #1 divorce predictor)
We’re talking about actions as much as words, e.g., Disrespect might be a sarcastic comment or eye-roll; Stonewalling might involve walking out of a room mid-fight or refusing to talk.
Whatever style we prefer, becoming more aware of how we fight is an important first step in learning how to fight well. Why? Because when we’re disrespectful, pointing fingers, shirking responsibility or refusing to interact, we’re so stuck in our style of conflict that resolution becomes impossible.
What’s your favorite conflict-style?
I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t have an answer (some of us, myself included, are great at more than one). Share the conflict-style you default to most with your spouse; this works best if you share with each other.
Now, spend a few minutes talking about how, the next time you disagree, you can shift from your conflict-styles to conflict-resolution .
Some couples I work with have given their Horsemen names. Hint: Do NOT use your in-laws names! Every time “Defensive Dolores” or “Stonewalling Stu” shows up in an argument, one of you can politely ask them to leave.
A great way to change your dynamic is to invert Gottman’s list:
If you’re adept at Disrespect, ask: How can I discuss this subject respectfully?
If Criticism is your forte,: How can I appreciate my spouse even if I don’t like something he or she does or says? How can I share what I’m thinking or feeling without pointing fingers?
If you’re prone to Defensiveness,: What’s my part in this?
And if Stonewalling is your thing, ask: How can I stay connected to my spouse, even if I want to shut down or run away?
Asking these questions, like owning our favorite conflict-styles, doesn’t magically resolve disagreements or ensure there’s no negative fallout. Yet the more we’re able to shift how we fight, the more we’re able to infuse our conflicts with respect, appreciation, personal responsibility and engagement. That’s bound to enhance relationship satisfaction and our parenting skills.
* If you’re keen on delving into the “why” question, here are a couple of books that offer interesting theories and techniques: Harville Hendrix’s Getting the Love You Want; and Stephen Betchen’s Magnetic Partners.